“Did you really fast for me?” (Zechariah 7:5).
In the book of Zachariah, there is a tragic event that takes place. Sometime after the captives have returned home from their seventy-year exile, a group of men inquire of the priests and ask this question: “Should we mourn and fast in the fifth month as we have done these many years?” Apparently, the people fasted and prayed during this period while they were exiled in Babylon. On the surface both the fasting and the question seem legit. After all, they were in exile being punished for their sin. Responding with prayer and fasting seems the appropriate thing to do.
However, God’s response to the question reveals a startling fact of the human heart (both theirs and ours). God responds to the question with these penetrating words, “Ask all the people of the land and the priests: when you fasted and lamented in the fifth and in the seventh months for these seventy years, did you really fast for me?” Ouch. I don’t think the delegation asking the question anticipated such a response. Maybe they thought they would be commended on how pious they were during those solemn times of fasting. Instead, God placed a mirror before their heart and revealed something they thought was hidden from view. God continues His response, “When you eat and drink, do you not eat and drink simply for yourselves?”
God saw their piety was, in fact, a self-serving act. During those years of hardship, they fasted and prayed because they wanted the hardship to end. But, God was revealing they should have wanted to draw closer to God, which would have led the people to live a life of obedience before Him. So, God says to them, “Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?” In other words, should you not have responded during the exile the same way the prophets urged your fathers to respond before the exile occurred? Should you not have sought obedience to God during your time in exile?
Their fathers ignored the prophets. The message of the prophets was for the people to return to God. “Return to me and I will return to you” was the heart of God’s message (Zach 1:3; Jeremiah 15:19; Malachi 3:7). The message entailed more than simple obedience. It was a call to seek God and to love Him (Deut 6:4-5). Obedience flows from a heart of love (John 14:15). Their act of piety where they fasted for a month during those seventy years was not an act of love whereby they were truly seeking and worshiping God. It was an act of self-interest where they were seeking their lot in life to be improved. The fact they even asked the question betrayed what was in their heart. In effect they were asking, “Since things are improving for us, God doesn’t really need to us continue those times of fasting, does He?”
After seventy years in exile, nothing really changed. The hearts of the people were the same coming out of exile as they were going in. God was not the object of their love: comfort and security was. Their religion was skin deep. When life got better their desire to worship diminished proportionally.
“Did you really fast for me?” This is a penetrating question. It revealed that the people’s religious life had nothing to do with God. They went about their religious activities only because they believed it might make life better. Through Isaiah God said, these “people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isa 29:13; Matt 15:8). It challenges us to ask the question of ourselves: why do we really worship? “Did you really fast for me?” Do we really worship to seek God? Do we really pray to discern His will? Do we really love God? Do we want to obey Him? Or, does our motivation lie elsewhere?
The next time we’re sitting in church we should let the question ring in our ears: “Did you really fast for me?” God already knows the answer. Do we?